The people who live on Alto Via Court might find it’s cheaper to abandon their homes than to stop the earth movement that’s destroying them, said Eric Rossman, a Boise attorney who lives near the end of the street.
Rossman’s firm specializes in medical malpractice, employment law and personal injury cases, so he’s new to the geology game. He was thrust into it a couple months ago when huge cracks started opening in the house belonging to one of his neighbors. Over the past three weeks, Rossman said, he’s started noticing cracks in his own patios, walls and stucco.
Damage to the homes on Alto Via, located in the third phase of the Boise Foothills’ Terra Nativa development, is the result of shifting ground. Several teams of engineers working for developers Richard Pavelek and Tim Day, the city of Boise and Ada County Highway District have yet to reach a consensus on what’s causing the shift, how serious it is and whether it can be stopped.
Rossman is getting impatient.
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“We can’t get anybody to do anything as far as remediation,” he said. “They like to test things, but it seems like they’re testing more to try to figure out whose fault it is than they are to try to stop it.”
Over the past two months, Rossman said, the ground has moved about 18 inches. Most of the people who live in six completed homes on Alto Via have moved out or are in the process of moving, Rossman said. The highway district closed the street last week. Police are keeping a close eye on the homes there. Utility companies have installed a variety of devices to protect the neighborhood in case underground pipes break.
Rossman and his neighbors filed tort claims — the first step toward a lawsuit — this week against the city and highway district, alleging that “geologists have long advised” both governments that the ground underneath their homes is unsuitable for residential development.
That accusation isn’t true, city spokesman Mike Journee said Thursday. Nothing came up in the city’s review of Terra Nativa’s geotechnical assessments to suggest the ground is unstable, Journee said.
A PAST LANDSLIDE?
Sometime before the birth of Christ, perhaps thousands of years, rocks and soil tumbled down a slope south of what is now Table Rock Road in the Boise Foothills.
The landslide scooped out a bowl-shaped divot in the slope and deposited debris just below today’s Alto Via Court.
That’s what Avram Ninyo believes happened, anyway. Ninyo, an engineer for San Diego-based geotechnical consulting firm Ninyo and Moore, said Thursday his analysis of historic aerial photos of the Alto Via area led him to conclude that a landslide occurred there at some point in history, probably thousands of years ago. Two geologists at his firm agree, he said.
The city isn’t so sure the ground under Terra Nativa’s third phase was a landslide area.
“We have no information that it was or it wasn’t,” Journee said.
Rossman has retained Ninyo to help him respond to the threat to his and his neighbors’ homes.
The Alto Via landslide indicates a deep, unstable geology in the area, Ninyo said, even though it happened so long ago. The same conditions that caused the landslide are probably still in place, he said.
“It is subject to fail again in the event of any kind of either grading or any kind of rainfall, any kind of water leak,” Ninyo said.
The city of Boise requires developers to submit geotechnical reports completed by licensed engineers for every Foothills development. The city then hires independent engineers to review those reports. None of these reports for Terra Nativa’s third phase mention a landslide in the area.
At the end of the day, we can’t keep Mother Nature from doing what she’s going to do.
City spokesman Mike Journee
If a landslide did, in fact, occur, Journee said, the city didn’t know about it when it was preparing permits for the development. Journee also said he knows of no landslide warnings that predate Terra Nativa’s planning phase.
A happy ending may be elusive for Rossman and his neighbors.
Rossman said insurance companies have, so far, refused to pay the homeowners’ claims because each policy has a “ground-movement exclusion.”
Pavelek’s and Day’s response has been less than satisfactory, too, Rossman said, and the neighbors are preparing lawsuits against them and Strata, the engineering firm that prepared the Terra Nativa reports.
Efforts to contact the developers and a representative of Strata were unsuccessful.
Based on preliminary research, Rossman said, the cost of stabilizing the ground could run in the millions of dollars.
So far, Rossman’s house hasn’t taken as much damage as the one two doors down, which provided the first visual evidence of a problem and is now deemed unsafe to live in. Rossman thinks that’s because the neighbor’s house is straddling the line between the ground that’s moving and the ground that isn’t.
By contrast, Rossman’s house is on top of what he thinks is one big wave of earth that’s moving downhill at the pace of an inch or two per week.
“So we’re basically surfing,” he said. “It’s very unsettling.”